Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Listening Test? Or Learning to Spy?!?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have had a few criticisms to make of assessment this year, both in general terms and in terms of the kind of assessment I am asked/expected to do (see Another Failure for the Exam-Based System and Testing Times if you haven’t come across them before).

My main problem with the whole system is the fact that across the globe young learners are being put under unnecessary pressure through standardised testing. Despite all the talk about formative assessment, portfolios and so on, exams are still used to dictate grades. Indeed, ‘alternative assessment’ is often something just thrown on top of the existing system rather than being used to change/replace assessment as it should (sweeping generalisation I know but certainly the case in Turkey).

(I am aware, of course, that I risk self-contradiction due to the fact that I am running a series of blog posts on getting my students ready for the Cambridge Flyers exam. I actually find the Cambridge YLE tests to be preferable to a lot of other exams out there. The main problem with them is, as mentioned above in regards to alternative assessment, they are often used in addition to existing tests (especially in-house ones) when they should, in my view, be used as replacements.)

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…for the purpose of creating listening test material - Image by sparktography

My main problem with the assessment I am asked to do is the listening test. First of all, it seems ridiculous that the students are given a KET listening test when they are preparing to take Flyers in the summer. Secondly, the style of the KET test strikes me as a bit old-fashioned - it’s full of radio announcements, making appointments and ‘street conversations’ between adults (that’s one good thing about Flyers listening - at least one kid is usually heard in the recording). It reminds me very much of the kind of listening tests I used to have when learning French at school - very much under the assumption that the person taking the test will visit a country where the foreign language is spoken. I thought we had moved past that point now (especially in English) and accepted that most non-native speakers of English will spend their ‘English lives’ interacting with other non-native speakers. Why then does the ‘listen to John talking to the chemist about his sore finger’ exam question still exist?

While thinking about the appropriacy of the contexts used for these test questions, another inadequacy was brought to my attention by one of students. We had just finished a test in which one of the sections featured a woman calling a music school to get information about lessons and I was collecting the papers when a particularly creative boy remarked “we are like secret agents”. Intrigued, I asked him to explain….

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Inside this inconspicuous black van is a crack team of non-native speakers who all aced their Cambridge tests  - Image by Ped-X-Ing

“Because we are listening secretly to other people’s telephone calls!” came the reply.

Not only did I find that incredibly funny and surprising to hear from an 11 year-old EFL student but it also struck me that it was true. With tests and textbook exercises like these, we are not really teaching our students the skill of listening - we are teaching them to gather information covertly by listening in to people in private conversation about personal issues such as illness, problems at home or plans for the weekend! We are, in fact, unwittingly training the spies of tomorrow with the top brass of the US and UK armed forces tracking those who get top marks in IELTS or TOEFL listening for potential recruitment:

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Image by Secretary of Defense

“We’ve been monitoring your progress ever since you took Starters kid - we need your skills to track a rogue agent’s phone calls….”

(Or, to look at it another way without the big brother paranoia, we are equipping future gossips and eavesdroppers with vital life skills… or training future tabloid editors!!)

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…so I can practice for my listening test - Image by nikos providakis

That’s one of the many ‘real world’ things that I think gets forgotten in the language classroom sometimes - listening is not an activity we do in class. It is an integral part of everyday conversation and interaction. And yet, a lot of class time is spent ‘simulating’ an experience students are only likely to have when listening to the radio (is The Archers still on?), watching TV or snooping on someone! Our time would be much better spent working on more authentic interactional experience where our students have to listen, comprehend and formulate responses/keep the conversation going.

But I guess that can’t be tested easily with an A/B/C/D answer sheet. Until that changes, our classrooms will have to remain that much more removed from reality….

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Lessons on the Fly: More Snow

Last week, I started off a series of lessons designed to get my students ready for the Cambridge Flyers test without resorting to photocopied worksheets and sample exam papers. We began with a picture based on the heavy snowfall that was cascading down outside and then did two activities: listen and colour (Flyers Listening Test Part 5); and listen and match the names (Flyers Listening Test Part 1).

This week, I returned the pictures to the students (having taken them in to make a few scans for the English website but more on that in another post). It has been an aim of mine in recent times to get more mileage out of activities and student-generated resources in classroom and so, both in terms of keeping the focus on the students’ work and balancing the half a lesson spent last week to produce the pictures, we came up with some more lesson ideas based on them.

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More fun in the snow

I say ‘we came up with’ the ideas because that’s exactly what happened. I asked the students what kind of activities they thought the pictures could be used for. After a few minutes of brainstorming, this is what they had thought of:

True/false statements based on the pictures

In the Reading and Writing section of the test (Part 2 to be precise), students are presented with a picture and 6 or 7 sentences which they then read and answer yes or no depending on whether the sentence is accurate or not. Their idea was to write their own sentences about the pictures and then quiz their friends. As they were writing, I went round and helped with the specific language needed (and it was good to note that most of them had retained vocabulary from the previous week such as sledging and have a snowball fight). They then got into groups, showed their pictures to each other and read out their statements.

With a pre-prepared practice activity, this would have been all over in 2 or 3 minutes but, done this way, the activity was a lot more in-depth. The students got creative with their language and again got to see the task ‘from the other side’ as they were writing questions, not just answering them. As we did the activity orally, there was a lot of speaking going on as well, which is always a bonus.

Guess the word
Another Reading and Writing question (Part 1 this time) involves reading definitions of words and choosing the correct one from a list of vocabulary. This has long been part of our lessons in game form with teams defining words for each other to guess. The students wanted to do something similar here so we decided to describe items of vocabulary that appeared in the pictures for the other students to guess. Quite a range of vocabulary came up as there were not only the snow and winter related words but also the ‘extra additions’ that had been included in some pictures like UFOs, yetis and giant pacmen intent on destroying all in their path!!

Again, this helped turn a one minute paper exercise into an extended activity with the students engaged and speaking to each other in English. As they were coming up with their own definitions to quiz their friends with, they got quite creative as they tried to catch each other out (such as one boy who described a snowman as ‘a man that is not really a man’!)

Information exchange
One of the Speaking parts of Flyers involves a classic information exchange. The examiner and candidate each have a card with question prompts and short answers and they ask and answer each other’s questions based on the information given. Having anticipated that the previous two activities would be suggested, I was quite impressed that my class came up with this idea that I had not though of - they swapped pictures with a partner, studied them and came up with a few questions that they would like to ask. The questions they wrote focused on asking for more information about the people in the pictures, what they were doing and why they were doing it (good practice of general information questions as well as present continuous). Not only was it good question writing practice but, when they started to talk to each other, they really had to think on their feet to come up with answers as they invented details and added background information to their pictures. I think all would agree that quick thinking and improvisation are two good skills to have honed for a speaking test!

And that was where this week’s session ended. The question and answer session about the pictures at the end got me thinking that there is a story behind each picture waiting to be uncovered… I think that’s where next week’s lesson will come from!

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Review: Oxford Bookworms for iPad

With the age of tablet PCs and e-readers now well upon us, I have been surprised to see a lack of ELT-related content available for these formats. It seems many publications are print-only or still accompanied by ‘interactive’ CD-ROMs. It was therefore a welcome and pleasant surprise when I was offered the chance to review some titles from the Oxford Bookworms series that have been made available as iPad apps.

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‘Front page’ of The Wizard of Oz

As with their print counterparts, the Bookworms apps are available in 5 stages, each with a different number of ‘headwords’ and a total word count varying with the level. All of the titles are adapted versions of classic titles such as The Wizard of Oz (Stage 1), The Jungle Book (Stage 2), Gulliver’s Travels (Stage 4) and a number of different Sherlock Holmes tales (varying Stages). The app itself downloads and installs to your iPad just like any other app store purchase and one click on the icon and you’re away.

At first I was a little wary of these being ‘adapted classics’. My experience of using readers based on well-known stories in class has not always been good as it often feels like certain events and characters are crowbarred in just because they are in the original. However, I found these adaptations much easier to read. The ‘retelling’ authors and editors have done a good job of ensuring that the text flows well and also maintains the tricky balance of being pitched at the right level without affecting the story adversely. It is also very refreshing to see that even the Stage 1 stories are written in past simple (I’ve never been a fan of those readers that ‘simplify’ everything by narrating in present tenses).

Reading the stories on the iPad is a comfortable experience. The layout of each page is clear as are the headings and the font used (although an option to adjust the size of the font would have been a nice addition). There are also a number of illustrations throughout each book which add colour, atmosphere and detail to the chapters. The pictures are also presented with captions in a ‘gallery’ at the end of each book, providing a nice way to review the story and examine the pictures in more detail.

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Clear illustrations add to the reading experience

Navigating the book apps is very straightforward - you simply touch on of the tabs on the main screen to go to the relevant section. The contents are all hyperlinked so tapping on Chapter 5 for example will take you straight there. Page turns are done either with a swipe across the screen or by using the arrows in the bottom-right corner and the ‘home’ button is always present in the bottom-left of the screen. The app also remembers where you were the last time you were reading so a simple tap on the ‘continue’ button allows you to pick up where you left off.

There is also an audio narration to go with each page of the story. There is an option to have this play automatically with the pages turning themselves. Alternatively, the reader can tap on the speaker icon in the centre of the navigation bar at the bottom of the page to listen to just that section of the story. I have had my doubts about the need for audio recordings with graded readers for a long time as I have often observed students not actually reading while the narration plays. I let a student I work with on a one-to-one basis explore the titles a little and his finger instantly went to the audio button and it took some persuading to get him to try reading first without listening (which he was more than capable of). There is also the fact that the story is often read out at a speed much slower than even the L2 student can read at. In the Bookworms series, the recordings are clear but they are very slow, even at the Stage 4 level. Indeed, the same student I mentioned just above told me that the stories were interesting and fun to read but the recordings were ‘a little boring’. Once he turned them off, he started to read at a much more natural pace.

The app versions are intended to promote extensive reading and provide ‘a rich self-study experience’. In line with those comments, there is a refreshing lack of comprehension activities and language work. I often feel such ‘extras’ only serve to interrupt the reading process and it’s good to just let our students read in a normal manner every so often (a point also raised in my recent review of World Adventure Kids). The only activity to come with each app is a quiz based on the vocabulary in the story. Through the settings, the reader has the option to choose the correct definition for a given word or the correct word for a given definition, which is a nice touch. One small criticism I would make of the quiz feature is that if you choose incorrectly from one of the four options, you have no chance to try again and choose from one of the remaining three answers. A second chance would provide a good opportunity for the reader to think a little deeper and learn from their mistake.

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A sample quiz question

There is also a glossary available on the main screen which provides an alphabetical list of selected words from the story with accompanying definitions. This is a nice touch but I couldn’t help but feel it could have been more extensive and interactive. The list in each book is a little on the limited side with only about 60-70 words in the Stage 1 and 2 titles. Also, the reader has to exit the story and come back to the main screen to access the glossary. If there was some way to have certain words ‘highlighted’ in the text itself with an option to click on them and see explanations, it would make the glossary feature more interactive without disrupting the flow of the story too much.

Correction: After initially publishing this review, I was contacted by a representative from OUP who pointed out that the glossary is actually interactive!! The words in the text are highlighted in a different colour and tapping on them reveals a definition of the word. How did I miss that? Well, in order to not distract the reader too much, a deep red (close to black) colour was used. The problem for me was that I am colour blind and find it difficult to distinguish between dark shades of red and blue and black. To my eyes, the whole text was black!! However, other people I have since shown the app to assure me they can see the glossary words in a different colour. Sorry about that! It is something to be aware of if you plan to use these titles though.

Despite some shortcomings with the accompanying audio and the glossary, I think the Oxford Bookworms series of story apps are worth a look for students (young teens, teens and adults) of a (pre-)intermediate level and upwards. The focus is very much on the stories themselves which are in turn engaging and well written for the levels they are aimed at. I would certainly recommend them to parents who approach me with the usual ‘what can we do at home to support our child’s learning?’ or ‘how can we encourage more reading?’ questions. Reading on the iPad will be a comfortable and enjoyable experience with the usual advantage of being able to carry several titles with you at any one time - a great way to encourage extensive reading in the digital age.

Check out the OUP app catalogue for the full range of titles and price details.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Lessons on the Fly: Let it Snow

We’ve had a lot of snow in this part of the world recently- not enough to cause major disruption but enough to ensure that the last six weeks have had a constant backdrop of snow. Despite snowfall being an almost daily occurrence in that time (and snow holidays being non-existent), the students still manage to get incredibly excited by it all, much to the annoyance of many teachers whose well-planned lessons have been ground to a halt by cries of “IT’S SNOWING!!” followed by a rush to the window. The usual reaction of most teachers is to pull the curtains shut and get back to work. However, I like to approach things a little differently and so it was last week that we made a lesson out of snow.

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Taken at my school last week - find this photo and many more much better ones on eltpics.

One snowy day…..

I teach five different 5th grade classes at my school in partnership with another teacher and twice a week, we split the class and I take half of them to my own classroom. The room has windows running all down one side and, with the curtains open, there is a great panoramic view of the surrounding countryside (we are on a campus outside the city limits). With the snow coming down thick and fast one morning, I pulled all the curtains open before the lesson began to let the wintery scene fill the room. When the students came in, they were all taken aback by the view and, after a couple of minutes of settling down time, I decided to make use of it.

Together, we brainstormed all the things we could see outside, which led to a number of collocations and compounds of ‘snow’ coming up (snowfall, snowstorm, snowflake, heavy snow, fresh snow, deep snow and so on). I then asked what they would do if they were outside right now (asked in second conditional form without any comprehension problems and even a few ‘I would…’ answers - who would have thought it?) That brought up a bunch of extra vocabulary, some of which most of the knew already (e.g. make a snowman, make snow angels), some of which they didn’t (e.g. sledging) and some of which they needed guidance with (e.g. have a snowball fight, dress up a Melishansnowman).

With all this vocabulary on the board and ideas buzzing around, I asked them to draw a picture showing all of the things we had talked about. As they drew, I went round asking questions, supporting them with the new language and offering ideas. I also got stuck in myself - my little stickman sketched always seem to put some of the less confident artists at ease!

Snow what?

So far, so good but at this point some people/dogme doubters/observers may start to say “over half the lesson time gone and all they’ve done is draw and come up with a few itePinarms of snow themed vocabulary - where’s the language production? Where’s the learning?” Fear not, for I shall now explain where we went from there.

As I said in my previous post, I am currently charged with preparing these students to take the Cambridge Flyers exam later this year. As anyone familiar with these tests will know, there are a number of questions that are picture-based and so, with our snow-themed efforts, we got cracking with the following exam-style activities:

Listen, colour and draw

One Flyers question presents students with a black and white illustration and asks kids to listen to a recorded conversation and colour the picture accordingly. They may also be asked to draw something extra or write something on the picture too. I had told the students not to colour their pictures as they drew, partly with keeping the drawing stage short in mind but partly with doing this activity in mind too. I asked them to swap pictures with a partner and explained that the other person would colour it as directed by the original artist.Unknown artist

So, one student took another’s picture and listened as they were told to colour the snowman’s hat red, write MUFC on the back of the boy’s coat and so on. This not only offered exam practice but also gave great speaking practice. There was plenty of use of prepositions, descriptive adjectives, have/has got and there is/are going on, all without the students being prompted to do so. It was also interesting to see how much language they had picked up from listening to the examples on the CD in their regular class as I heard lots of things like ‘Can you see the girl over there by the tree?’ and ‘No, not that one - I mean the one who isn’t wearing a hat’. All of that language had probably been receptive before but now they had a reason to activate it.

Listen and match the names

CanAnother exam listening activity involving pictures asks the students to match names to the people illustrated based on the conversation they hear. That was our next activity. With their own pictures back in front of them, I asked the students to write a list of names. They now worked with a different partner who asked “Who is John?”. They then described the characters they had drawn. The partner had to identify who was being described and point to them (I thought drawing lines wasn’t a good idea in case anyone complained about their picture being ‘defaced’ or ‘ruined’). Again, they not only practiced the listening part but got some focused speaking practice in as well as they described people in the picture, their actions and what they were near.

And that’s not all…Ipek

Sadly, our lesson time for that day finished there. Again, some detractors may still question the value of half a lesson of drawing and two activities when we could have practiced several question types in a more ‘standard’ manner. Well, again I would emphasise that high level of language that was used and used creatively during these activities. On top of that, it was based on the students’ own artistic efforts giving them a heightened feeling of personal involvement and connection to the activities. Finally, why should it stop here at just one lesson? There are many other activities we can do with these pictures to practice for the Flyers test and with that in mind, I collected all the pictures at the end of the lesson so we can make use of them the next time we have an exam prep lesson. I’ll leave those of you who are familiar with the Cambridge YLE tests to guess what those activities might be.

…plus a little bit of digital homework!

One of the speaking questions in the test involves two pictures with the students asked to describe differences between them. As my kids had drawn pictures based on the same wintery theme, that made them perfect for the same activity. To add a little twist, I scanned the two images below (drawn by two girls who always work together hence the similar style) and posted them on the class page on our 5th Grade website with the task to describe the differences between them. Once again, the task was a big hit (described to me as ‘much more fun than normal homework’!) and the girls were very happy to see their own contributions forming the basis of an activity for the whole class. The promise of more artwork to be used on the website in future has caused considerable excitement as well!

DuruCagla

Can you describe the differences? Smile

Monday, 20 February 2012

Upcoming Workshop (and Blog Series) - Making Exam Prep Child’s Play

In little over a month’s time (24-25th March, 2012 to be exact), the institution I work for here in Turkey will hold its 5th ELT Conference. Each year, a different branch of the school hosts the event and this year we will be descending on Istanbul for the first time. It will also be the first time the conference is a two-day event.

PosterOnay.indd

As you can see from the poster above, the theme is Empowering the Learner: Linking Assessment to Learning (check out the website here) and, as usual, I will be doing a workshop session. Deciding what to focus on was a bit tricky for me this year because, as regular visitors to this blog will know, I’ve had some doubts about the current system of assessment we use recently. Despite all the talk in ELT circles of formative assessment, portfolios, assessment for learning and so on, the fact remains that grammar and vocabulary based exams still dominate most schools and form the basis of end of year grades. Rather than go for some idealistic attempt to turn the system on its head, I thought I’d go for the ‘necessary evil’ approach - exams are a fact we have to deal with so how best to prepare young learners for them without stressing them out or letting the exam dominate proceedings?

In addition to the in-house tests, most of the students at my school from 3rd Grade onwards sit one of the Cambridge YLE Tests (Starters, Movers or Flyers depending on their level). Although I’m not a fan of tests for kids in general, one thing I do like about these particular ones is that they focus on what the students know rather than what they have just learned in the last couple of units or so. There are no questions like ‘put the verbs into the correct tense’ or ‘fill the gaps with on/in/at’. Instead, students need to show their general comprehension of the language in order to answer the question successfully.

So far, so good but what happens when the teachers get together and talk about how to prepare the students for these tests? They talk about whether or not we should use an extra book or, if not, should we prepare worksheets? Or photocopy past papers? Or make vocabulary lists? It’s that old issue again - we strive to fill the gaps instead of just leaving some space….

And leaving space for students to explore, learn new language and develop exam skills is exactly what my session will be about. I am convinced that a dogme-inspired approach (yes, the d-word again!) can be just as effective in getting my students ready for this exam as worksheets and photocopied past papers (and probably more enjoyable!)

In the run up to the conference, I will be doing lessons based on student-generated content such as their own pictures and stories and adapting them for use as exam practice tasks. They will be doing some adapting too as they view the exam from a different angle by preparing their own questions to quiz their classmates with. I will of course be sharing these lesson ideas (none of which I claim to be original but it’s useful to highlight them nonetheless) and reflections on how they went here on the blog. As my students will take the Flyers exam this year, the posts will be called….

Lessons On The Fly
(snare shot please!)

I guess it’s not so much ‘linking assessment to learning’ as ‘linking learning to assessment’. I want the emphasis to be on learning and developing language skills with the exam preparation an added bonus - and not a photocopy in sight!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Some Observations on Observation

It was 8.30pm on a slightly humid late spring evening. After an all too short tea break, students were returning to their seats and readying themselves for the final leg of a long day of work and evening classes. The teacher too was feeling the strain of the dreaded ‘split shift’ having done the morning/afternoon intensive courses and then the late evening slot as well.

Just as they were all ready to get back into reviewing the present continuous, a woman appeared at the door. “Sorry to interrupt, David,” said the DoS, for that is who she was, “but would you mind if I did that observation now? I know we said Wednesday morning but I’ve just remembered I have a meeting then.”

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Not my old DoS obviously but Fringe fans will get the reference - Image by Godric Hufflepuff

Such an ‘unexpected’ change of plans was not entirely surprising. Our director had a habit of springing surprises such as this especially when, as was the case in this instance, it was an official observation (I was nearing the end of my contract period and we had to play the game of “let’s see if you’re good enough for a contract renewal and a pay rise”). Of course, I obliged (was there any other option?) and so began an observation that would make me a cynical critic of being ‘officially’ observed, a viewpoint that survives to this day.

Back in those days (this was about ten years ago), I was still very much in PPP mode and we were about to move into ‘practice’ mode having done the ‘presentation’ before the tea break. I had various flashcards of people engaged in different activities and, after eliciting the question What is he/she doing?, the students got on with the activity and I went around monitoring. I then boarded some errors I had noted and we went through them as a class and then they got on with some workbook activities. About halfway through the session, I noticed two students grinning widely and trying hard to supress their giggles. Intrigued I asked them what was going on. One of them pointed to the DoS at the back of the class and said “What is she doing?” to which his partner replied “She is sleeping!”

Sure enough, my observer was sat with her eyes closed and her head gently nodding forwards. “Oh dear!” I exclaimed, “Is my lesson really this boring?” (to be fair, it probably was!) which drew laughter from the whole class. At that point the DoS opened her eyes, smiled and then pretended to write something on her notepad (the page was clearly blank). We then got on with the lesson, moving into ‘production’ mode (probably a what is your husband/wife/family doing now? activity) while my boss dozed at the back of the class.

When the lesson was over, she said we would talk about the lesson when I had a break in my schedule the next day and off she went. When the feedback session came, I was curious to know what she had observed exactly through her slumber! The first thing she said was “you obviously have a good rapport with the class” referring, I assumed, to the little burst of laughter that had stirred her briefly from her sleep. “But the lesson was a little dry” she went on.

“What do you mean?” I enquired.

“It could have done with some visuals” she said. “The workbook exercises are useful of course but some pictures would have worked well for present continuous.”

“Or maybe some flashcards” I suggested, waiting to see what her reaction would be.

“Yes!” she answered. “We have plenty of those in the resource library you know.”

And so it went on. Why did I focus only on the affirmative structure? Why not negatives and interrogatives? (I did do those, while you were snoozing!) Why didn’t I wrap it up with a personalised activity? (Again, I did!) Too much time at the board - where was the monitoring and circulation? (Where was the alert observer?)

It struck me that she just had a list of standard observations to make and, no matter what, there would be a focus on what I should have done and what I failed to do. It has been the same with every observation I’ve ever had conducted by a DoS, HoD or Senior Teacher. One asks why there was no warmer, the other asks why you wasted five minutes at the start on a pointless activity. One says where were the concept questions, another asks why you kept on asking questions after every little instruction. One says your lesson was ‘dry’ (that’s an observer word I detest but that’s another rant for another post!), another says it was fun but lacking focus…. and so it goes on.

And we wonder why so many teachers are not keen on being observed! This kind of feedback, or rather the manner in which it is delivered, only serves to create an air of negativity with the observed going on the defensive. Stress, apprehension, worry and uncertainty are all feelings that seem to surface when it’s time for that ‘official’ visit to class. This is a shame as I believe observations can be a fantastic opportunity for development if handled in the right way.

My very first observation shortly after getting my first teaching job was in many ways the best one. My observer, a grumpy Scottish EFL veteran who had been assigned to be my ‘mentor’, simply went through the stages of the lesson he watched and asked me why I had decided to structure the lesson in that way and why I had chosen the activities that I did. The feedback was non-judgmental and really helped to draw out reflections in me by leaving some space for me to think.

So instead of ‘you should have done this’ isn’t it better to ask ‘why did you do what you did’? Rather than criticism and defence, shouldn’t the feedback be about reflection and realisation? And instead of imposing the observer’s view of how things should be done, wouldn’t it be better to seek to understand the teaching preferences of the observed?

Oh, and of course, isn’t it better to actually stay awake and pay attention to what’s going on rather than trotting out some standard criticisms that could be applied to virtually any teacher?Winking smile

Or maybe I’m being over-dramatic. Please go ahead and share your experiences (positive and negative) of being observed and how you think it works/would work best.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Review: World Adventure Kids

A few months back, I was excited to hear about the release of a new story book for kids learning English by Jason Renshaw (a.k.a. English Raven). Anyone who knows the Raven knows he has considerable talents when it comes to material development and design so I was curious to see what his new creation would be like. I was even more delighted when he offered me free access to the final product to trial with my kids and review. Unfortunately, work and study swamped me soon after so it’s only now that I’m getting round to reviewing the thing (apologies Jason) but this is a work that deserves some attention so better late than never!

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The story book is called World Adventure Kids and the first thing that impressed me was the fact that you actually get two adventure stories in one: Doctor Darkleaf and Tomb of the Pharaoh.

Here’s the first thing that sets WAK aside - it’s a ‘choose your own adventure’ style book. You may have read something like this in your younger days (I know I read a few!) but the idea is simple: you read a paragraph or two and then you are presented with a choice and, depending on what you decide, you are directed to a specific page number. For example:

Capture

The book itself is in pdf format so when you make your choice, you click on the relevant blue box and jump directly to that page!

This format of storytelling has the advantage of putting the reader ‘in control’ of the story (and this is why such books are often called interactive fiction). Therefore, the story is told in the second person with use of ‘you’ really giving the feeling that the reader is inside the story. This increases reader engagement in a number of ways - at times you may be asked to make a decision about what to do next that effects the progression of the story (as in the example above), at other times you may be asked something based on what you have just read and be required to answer the question correctly. Make the right choice and you can move on through the story; make the wrong choice and you may have to go back or, even worse, start all over!

WAK exploits these ‘choose your own adventure’ features to the full. While reading, you can’t help but feel involved in the story and instructions to note things down should be heeded if you are to make the right choices later on! Several of the choices also act as a clever way of weaving comprehension questions into the story - rather than a boring post-chapter exercise, your students will most likely see them as an integral part of the story.

For me, a stand-out feature of WAK is that it is very well written. Books like this are not easy to put together so hats off to Jason for making the story flow even through the differing paths it can take. Furthermore, it is beautifully illustrated with colourful character portraits and atmospheric backdrops adding to the sense of engagement and involvement. Another masterstroke is that one of the main characters you interact with, the President of World Adventure Kids Golden Sky, is female. Boys will have already been drawn in by the adventure theme and girls will be drawn in by this strong lead character.

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But that’s just what I think. The best people to give opinions about this book are the children it is aimed at so I distributed copies of the book to six of my students. I didn’t want to influence their feedback at all so I just asked them if they would be interested in reading it and that was that. The only thing I told them was that someone I knew had written it and wanted to know what kids thought of it. I also instructed them not to share the book with anyone as it was a review copy.

The first sign that the book was a hit came when I discovered that, despite my instructions, the pdf file had been passed on to other kids. It seems the six I had given it to had been overheard talking to each other about it and they were put under pressure to share! Anyway, they really got into the stories and, as I suspected, the girls were impressed with Golden Sky and all the kids, boys and girls alike, loved the stories.
They were very keen to share their ‘secret names’ (even though I pointed out that this defeated the point of having a secret name!) and they were also keen to discuss the different choices they had made and the consequences. It was great to see such excitement and discussion arising from a book they had read, even more so because it was a book they had read in English.

All of them said the book was as good as or better than the books they read in their English lessons. One thing that surprised them was when I revealed the author was in fact an English teacher himself. “Oh, I thought it was a real storybook” was how one boy put it! They also enjoyed being given a book just to read rather then to study. As one girl commented “I’m reading this just like a normal book.” Both reactions are very much in line with what Jason was aiming for - a story to be read and enjoyed instead of interrupted with vocabulary reviews, comprehension checks and grammar exercises.

That makes WAK markedly different to the majority of readers for kids learning English on the market today. I showed it to a colleague as well and he immediately expressed doubts about how useful it would be as a class text. “The students will all be in different places and at different stages at the same time” he said. “How can you build a lesson around that?” To me, that is exactly the kind of ‘approach’ to using readers with young learners of English that WAK is trying to change. Somewhere along the line, readers and stories have become nothing more than extended exercises with more of a focus on language than plot. With all the narrated recordings available or reading aloud going on, students don’t even have to read them anymore. WAK has a good crack at getting kids to actually sit down and read something in English. There would be nothing wrong with setting up a lesson in which kids read quietly (why should there be?) As a teacher, you could monitor and help kids when they are stuck or not sure what to do. Or why not let kids read the stories in small groups and discuss the options and arrive at a decision together?

The only real criticism to come from me and my students is to do with the pdf format. The internal links work well as you jump from one page to another but I did wonder as I looked at it before giving copies to my kids if they might have problems with it. Sure enough, a couple of them (not the majority I might add) reported that they ‘got lost’ due to clicking on the wrong button or going on to the next page instead of selecting one of the options. The other issue was that the clickable links did not work on the electronic device of choice for many of the kids, the iPad. That was a shame as reading something like this on a tablet device would be more relaxing and enjoyable than reading from a computer screen. Good news for Android tablet users though in the shape of Mantano Reader, which keeps all the links usable. Perhaps there is an iPad app that allows the same but the ones I have tried did not.

Anyway, technical issues aside, this is a great book and I would strongly recommend it for children learning English. It works well as a book for kids to read through on their own (as holiday reading or a book for ‘reading hour’ for example) and, with the right approach, it would work as a class reader as well. I think the ELT industry as a whole needs to shift away from the idea that everything needs to be guided, supported and littered with ‘concept checks’, ‘vocabulary development’ and ‘language focus’ segments - a text, story or reader can stand on its own as a work of fiction to be read for pleasure and enjoyment - World Adventure Kids lets your learners do just that!

And, saving the best for last, in a surprise announcement, Jason has made the whole book and additional resources available for FREE. If you wish to download a copy to share with your students (and I strongly recommend you do) or you want some more information (from the Raven’s mouth so to speak), go to the English Raven World Adventure Kids page - the adventure starts there!